Is project management software right for you?

Small or large, projects require discipline in planning and execution. The success or failure of a project depends on the skill and expertise with which it is managed. Although it cannot replace the intelligence that envisions and implements all of a project's phases, project management software can save plant engineers time and promote effective management by providing tools to simplify comple...

By Jack Smith, Senior Editor, PLANT ENGINEERING magazine June 15, 2002
Key concepts
Project management software is a planning and scheduling tool.
Most project management software can present data with respect to tasks or resources.
Project closure requires analyzing prior tasks to make future projects run more smoothly.
Project elements
Define the project
Plan the project
Track the project
Close the project
Planning across the enterprise
People skills bring software tools to life

Small or large, projects require discipline in planning and execution. The success or failure of a project depends on the skill and expertise with which it is managed. Although it cannot replace the intelligence that envisions and implements all of a project’s phases, project management software can save plant engineers time and promote effective management by providing tools to simplify complex tasks.

Project elements

Managing projects successfully requires balancing and combining available resources effectively. The key objectives of project management are to complete the project within the allotted time and within the budget.

Regardless of whether or not you use project management software, most projects are typically classified into the following phases:

  • Define —recognize opportunity and identify the potential to create or modify something that will benefit the company. Also, examine alternatives and explore the possibilities, available options, the best option, and how it can be accomplished.

  • Plan —determine the basic design. Frame the parameters. Define the project scope in enough detail so that an accurate design can be planned.

  • Track —execute the plans and map out the engineering, procurement, and construction. Plan the work; work the plan. Monitor the project.

  • Close —close the loop and put the project into operation. The project team assesses results to determine if the goals were achieved.

    • Fig. 1. Critical schedule and resource details can be analyzed by viewing Gantt and PERT charts. The bars in the upper portion of this screen shot represent a Gantt Chart. A PERT chart is shown in the lower portion. (Courtesy Primavera Software)

      Define the project

      Project management software provides tools for creating project plans of virtually any size. It allows you to track progress, head off problems, and communicate important project information. However, there is no software program that provides opportunity recognition or project definition. The vision of what the project will entail is up to you and should be defined in writing before software tools are brought into the picture.

      High-level decisions are made concerning the project during the project definition stage. To define a project, start by defining the scope of the project. Determine the goals you wish to accomplish with this specific project. Decide which major tasks are required to attain these goals.

      Determine realistically the resources you have at your disposal. Decide how many people with which skills you will need to perform the required tasks. Do you have the right people within the company, or will you have to subcontract certain tasks? List the types of equipment needed. Do you have this equipment, or do you need to purchase, rent, or lease critical pieces of machinery to enable you to perform the required work?

      Establish the time and money limits of your project. How much time do you have to complete the project? What are the milestones? What are the deadlines? How much money has been allotted for this project? Is the budget realistic? Has your company budgeted for this project? Is financing available if needed?

      Plan the project

      The project plan puts direction into the project definition by enabling you to map it accurately. It consolidates the scope, resources, schedule, and budget in one place. The project plan can include at least the following factors:

    • How many tasks are required?

    • What are these tasks?

    • Who will perform each task?

    • What is the estimated cost of each task?

    • What is the estimated cost of the entire project?

    • What is the task sequence?

    • What are the dependencies among tasks?

    • What is the estimated duration of each task?

    • What are the task constraints?

    • What is the estimated length of the entire project?

      • Using project management software enables you to enter tasks during the planning phase. It allows you to estimate and calculate how many hours or days it will take to complete each task, schedule each task, and calculate the finish date. You can specify when one task should start relative to another and assign resources to tasks. The software can alert you when the scope, resources, and time are out of balance.

        Track the project

        Your plan allows you to track the progress of the project by comparing actual data to your original estimates. A good plan should enable you to identify problems that could knock the project off schedule or completely derail it. It also should help you analyze resource requirements throughout the project. If workloads are unbalanced, the plan should make it evident. Further, the plan should be flexible enough to allow for midstream changes that could help you complete the project sooner.

        Project management software typically presents both estimates and actual data, thus enabling you to make your plan effective. It calculates and displays the differences between estimates and actual, as well as the effect of updates on the schedule.

        Most project management software can present data with respect to tasks or resources. When manipulating task information, software usually offers several tracking tools . These tools include:

      • Gantt chart —a graph consisting of horizontal bars and predefined symbols that represent the start or ending dates and duration of each task.

      • PERT chart —a graph, resembling a flowchart, that graphically represents tasks as a network of dependencies. PERT is an acronym for program evaluation and review technique.

      • Calendar —a typical monthly calendar with graphic representations of tasks and their durations superimposed.

      • Task usage list —a list of tasks indicating assigned resources grouped according to each task. This list is used to determine work loading per resource.

      • Task sheet —a list, resembling a spreadsheet, that is used for entering and scheduling tasks and related information.

        • When viewing and manipulating resource information, software usually allows you to show resource allocation, cost, or work with respect to time. Graphs or lists can display information about a single resource or a group of resources. Resource list information can be entered or viewed in spreadsheet format. Assigned tasks can be grouped according to, and associated with each resource. Cost or work allocation is available for each resource. The amount of work resources perform on each task can usually be adjusted here.

          Close the project

          There is no perfect project, regardless of how well it is managed. However, what good is making mistakes if you don’t learn from them? Project closure involves resolving outstanding issues, identifying what worked well, as well as problems and areas for future improvements.

          Typical project management software allows you to save a copy of your original plan, as well as adjustments made to that plan during the project. You can store notes about tasks and resources for reference when analyzing problems and performance. It also allows you to use project information to document your findings.

          Project closure allows you to perform the analysis tasks required to make subsequent projects run more smoothly.

          Planning across the enterprise

          Effective planning requires effective communication. Good communication is a personal discipline independent of software. The latest offerings in project management software facilitate communication across the enterprise.

          Today’s project management software typically enables project teams to plan and control the work while providing a continuous, centralized understanding of progress and performance. Project managers have access to dynamic project status information required for making timely, informed decisions. Some software enables detailed project analysis during project execution, providing the ability to forecast trends, isolate problems, and show estimated cost and time to completion.

          The ability to collaborate on an enterprise-wide basis can potentially improve plant efficiency and productivity across project teams and multiple departments. Information is now available on the desktops of all project participants. Communication is possible among all members or can be directed to individuals. The ability to send messages and make specific views or reports available to targeted individuals or groups enables good project team communication, while preserving need-to-know status. Making consistent, summarized project status information available to top management helps to increase accountability and facilitates the inclusion of critical information that might otherwise delay projects. Some project management software programs enable remote notification of job assignments and automated time collection from field personnel.

          PLANT ENGINEERING magazine extends its appreciation to Eaton Corp., Eaton | Cutler-Hammer, Integrated Project Management Co., Microsoft, and Primavera Software for the use of their materials in the preparation of this article.

          People skills bring software tools to life

          Which software is best to ensure the success of large as well as small projects? Different software packages offer varying capabilities and flexibility; however, powerful is not always best, especially if complexity is not required. In the simplest of terms, software decisions should be driven by the scope (as in project scope) of its intended use. As in any project, scope is determined by assessing needs or requirements that must be served to satisfy the project objective. The first order of business is to establish and document the objective of purchasing software, then listing the requirements. The target should be “optimum scoping” — the software must serve your current and anticipated needs. Keep it focused and simple.

          Having software that simplifies planning activities, and control procedures is important because it allows the project manager flexibility to focus on eliminating the potential for project failures (over budget, missed schedules, scope variability, etc.) But using the latest software certainly will not guarantee your project’s success.

          The best software for a specific project cannot compensate for the human elements — the skills required to bring the tools to “life” — the ability to organize, coordinate, lead and, most importantly, inspire others. Often, too much emphasis is placed on tools and technology while the qualifications for fulfilling the project manager role are underestimated. It is a mistake to believe that any good engineer who learns the basic project management process and how to use planning software can be successful at leading teams to achieve an objective. If the human elements are deficient, the project is at risk.

          Following are some considerations that will help any organization realize the benefits of its investment in software, and better manage any project to a successful conclusion:

          Before assigning a project manager from your internal staff, audit your organization and identify leaders: those who are self-motivated, have strong interpersonal skills, are visionary, and love working with and helping others. Assess whether these same individuals display self-discipline. Do they consistently meet commitments, are they on time, focused on producing quality work, etc.?

          Determine whether individual team members and stakeholders understand the implications of their roles. Take time to teach them how to behave and participate in a project environment.

          Ensure that the project community knows how to decipher communications. Too often, sophisticated plans and schedules, resource planning materials, and other critical communications are not understood by those who most need to know. Communications that are not easily understood serve no value.

          Employ resource planning beyond the project. Most organizations do a reasonable job of assessing the project resource needs but ignore the fact that the same resources already have full-time assignments. This causes confusion and frustration that can result in missed commitments, reduced quality, and major inefficiencies.

          Educate management-level decision makers on the criticality of focus. Projects that are level-loaded (when time is allocated based on an individual’s availability instead of what is required to complete a task efficiently) are prone to failure, especially on larger, complex projects.

          As part of the education process, negotiate cultural conduct. Cultures that accept meeting tardiness, missed commitments, poor meeting facilitation, or participation increase the risk of project failure.

          Although a very strong project manager can create a project sub-culture within an environment, it will take much more time and attention. You get the behavior you tolerate.

          Consistently apply insight and foresight to plans so that the influence of conditions is continually understood and managed; the software should be able to help you measure possible impacts.

          Expect to manage change—be flexible yet decisive.

          Create a collaborative project environment that maximizes innovation, competency, and camaraderie. Manage conflicts now.

          Delegate responsibility and authority, and ensure accountability.

          Act and behave as a leader. Leaders don’t need excuses and don’t need to be empowered. They understand that tools have their place. In the hands of a craftsman, they can produce glorious results.

          Contributed by C. Richard Panico, President, Integrated Project Management Co., Inc., Burr Ridge, IL.